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Category Archives: Croatia 2013

Highway to… Somewhere.

One of the easiest ways to get around Dubrovnik, beyond the Old Town, is by bus. And for about £3 you can buy a ticket that lasts all day. Where to go with that ticket is a different matter, as I enquire at the travel kiosk by the Pile Gate.

“So it’s 30 Kuna – and that allows me to use all the buses all day?”

“Yes.”

“Great – have you got a map please?”

“No – timetables on the bus stop.”

I have absolutely know idea where any of the destinations are, until I get on a bus for one of the coastal locations. The driver shakes his head : “No – only for local bus.”

This limits the choice somewhat, as many of the city routes are designed to link hotels and private resorts. Babin Kuk, for example, has a beach – but not much else other than a few banks and mini markets. And Nuncijate is just a suburb, though its position overlooking the main port is quite spectacular.

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From here, there are basically two choices. Have a coffee and get the same bus back, or walk its all flat or downhill. And on a warm day, the views are rewarding enough.

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One of the main choices of transport around here is the scooter. They perilously juggle with the traffic on the open road, as do I on foot. I’m tempted to follow some of the narrow steps in between the buildings which might get me back to the Old Town eventually, but I can’t be sure that any of them lead to other public roads. Almost every spare house, shed and shack has a sign saying “apartment” outside. I’ve heard that many locals simply move out of town during the tourist season, knowing they can make a year’s worth of rent from their own apartments in just a few weeks.

And then there are the new builds – the curse of many European countries. Some hotel chains are investing heavily in new luxury infrastructure. But it’s by no means clear as to how many of this type of development will ever be completed.

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It’s the middle of the day, and there’s not a single worker in site. Sadly I’ve seen this scenario played out in many other countries. The boom of the late 1990s and early 2000s was replaced by a nosediving economy. And no EU rescue loan is going to convince more visitors in if they don’t have the spending power. Most Croatians are too poor to be able to stay in Dubrovnik for a holiday, and this is a country which relies on tourism for more than 20% of its income.

And so to the evening. A pavement cafe, and look who turned up for a free concert:

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Yes, it’s my new most favourite six people, courtesy of NATO. Yet getting all six of them in one shot is proving tricky. So who did we miss off? Sorry, bass guy! You didn’t make the picture tonight. So here’s one from last night instead.

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Posted by on September 27, 2013 in Croatia 2013, Travel Stuff

 

A Palatial Performance

There’s no doubt that I love live music, and on my travels I’ve seen gigs in some pretty unusual settings. If I’m being honest, I prefer small back street bars where you can mix with the locals and soak in the atmosphere. So for tonight’s performance, I feel right at home. If not a little underdressed.

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This is the Rector’s Palace, an opulent building for a man that, in times gone by, was held in fairly high esteem – but by all accounts was something of a thankless task. The Rector was very much a civic position : a bit like a British Mayor. And the person doing the job changed each month. It may have been a nice building to occupy, but during that month the Rector was required to stay inside the Palace and not make contact with his family, lest they get in the way of his very important duties.

That was then. Tonight, the Palace is mixing Broadway with jazz, courtesy of the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra and the NATO band I met in the bar last night.

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The first half is all about the orchestra, with jazz playing second fiddle – if that makes sense. Then, during the interval, the real music takes centre stage. And considering that less than twenty four hours ago these guys were in danger of drinking me under the table, they don’t half scrub up well.

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Brent and Renaud – seen in the final picture – seem to attract the biggest attention from the female members of the audience. Brent “looks just like George Clooney” says one woman, who insists on a personal photo. While Renaud simply attracts sighs from mothers whose children clearly didn’t turn out as well as they’d hoped.

All in all a good night. And a chance to see part of a NATO operation that few are probably aware of. You can find out more about the Shape International band by clicking here

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in Croatia 2013, Travel Stuff

 

All That Jazz

Things you don’t expect to see in Dubrovnik

1. A NATO-sponsored Jazz Ensemble.

I’m not sure it’s worth even attempting to add to that list. But you won’t be surprised to learn that the story starts in an Irish bar. It turns out that the band have just arrived in town for three days of concerts with the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra, and having flown straight in from their base in Brussels they’re getting their priorities right. By having a pint.

James, the drummer, explains that NATO’s Jazz Ensemble is part of the wider Shape orchestra. That’s right – a whole team of musicians who play some pretty mean tunes. But getting band members from every nation can be tricky, as different countries face economic pressures of their own. And music isn’t always a priority.

The idea of a touring band sponsored by the military immediately conjures up images of Windsor Davies and Don Estelle in It Ain’t Half Hot Mum, and part of me wonders which highly decorated general gets to sign off the money for what might seem like a fairly outdated enterprise.

However, their invitation to perform in Dubrovnik has come fro. the organisers of the Wine and Jazz Festival which begins today. For me, this sounds like a fabulous combination. But the event’s website confusingly advises you to “book early” for the concert, and then says that tickets only go on sale one hour before the concert begins. So it’ll be a last minute queue to get a good seat.

As a general rule of thumb, the more central an eatery is to a famous site, the more expensive it gets. And Dubrovnik is no different, although you can also add to that painfully slow service and painfully loud Spanish tourists sitting next to you. To be honest, I only chose the undercover outdoor seating area because something has arrived that I didn’t order – heavy rain.

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This doesn’t dampen the spirits of the Spaniards, who seem to rarely draw breath in between their sentences. The woman in the party then lights up a high tar cigarette which she helpfully blows downwind to my table. It’s amazing what a few years’ difference the smoking ban has made back home. Previously I wouldn’t have given a second thought to a tobacco filled atmosphere – and returning home from the pub with a smelly shirt was a given. But in 2013, I don’t expect it to happen during a lunchtime meal outdoors.

The sunshine attempts to break through the clouds, so it’s a chance to escape the bustling square and head to one of one of the city’s most celebrated bars. As long as you can find it.

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There are only a few clues as to Buza’s location, and when you get there, even fewer frills. But despite its basic furnishings and relatively high prices, it’s hard to beat the setting on the rocks below the city walls.

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Posted by on September 26, 2013 in Croatia 2013, Travel Stuff

 

Andrea’s Adriatic

It’s an early start today – a 7.30 pick up for a tour to the island of Korcula. And at this time of the morning, Drubrovnik’s Stradun takes on a very different and peaceful personality.

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I’ve opted for a small group tour, and it lives up to its name, with a total of eight travellers on board the comfortable minibus. Our guide, Andrea, is fluent in English and Spanish – enough to satisfy a mix of British, Brazilian and Argentinians. We climb out of the port of Gruz and onto a relatively new bridge spanning the Adriatic Highway, although its title suggests something more grand than a single carriageway snaking up the coastline.

Andrea tells us that there are plans for another new bridge, circumventing the annoyingly small five miles of coastline that still belong to Bosnia. This means long delays for commerce, as paperwork has to be checked for goods coming out and back in to Croatia. But it’s a poor country, and now that it’s part of the EU, Brussels will have the final say on whether the bridge will even be funded.

Just as we enter the Peljesac Peninsula, there’s a stop at the small town of Ston. Despite modest appearances – and an historic trade based on salt production, it boasts some of the steepest city walls in the country.

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Apparently, like the Great Wall of China, the ramparts of Ston can be seen from space.

But it’s not just about condiments around here, because this region is home to some of the freshest oysters and best Croatian wines. More of which later – but first it’s a short boat ride to Korcula – known as Little Dubrovnik. And it’s easy to see why.

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The island itself stretches for around 20 miles from east to west, though the main town itself takes less than half an hour to walk around. And it’s true beauty is seen by looking skywards. Like Dubrovnik, much of the architecture is similar to that found in Venice. In fact, the Croatians and the Italians have quite a bit in common: Korcula is allegedly the birthplace of Marco Polo. His “house” is here, as are a chain of gift shops playing on his name.

All of this history is thirsty work. So on the way back, there’s a visit to one of the dozens of vineyards in this region for a bit of wine tasting.

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This kind of activity should make for a leisurely afternoon of drinking. But the Madirazza winery is very much a business – and groups are ushered through at breakneck speed for a quick glug and a quick sale. We’re in and out in less than 20 minutes.

That said, it’s a great product and Southern Dalmatia is a perfect place to make it. On the return trip, thousands of vines stretch on either side of the hills before crashing into the sea. Occasionally we see grape pickers hard at work in the September sunshine. And in the shops, there’ll be no shortage of a few thousand customers from one of these.

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And there are eight satisfied customers with today’s tour. Andrea has furnished us with history, local knowledge and a good sense of humour. Now it’s time to sample that wine in a little more depth.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2013 in Croatia 2013, Travel Stuff

 

Climb Ev’ry Mountain (by cable car)

It’s Tuesday, so it must be time to go up a mountain. Obviously. Namely Mount Srd, a historical site for all the wrong reasons. It’s strategic position overlooking Dubrovnik has meant it becoming a key location for some of the fiercest battles in the city. The most recent was the Balkan War in the early 1990s, where Croats fought for their independence against the Serbs – at a time when the area was still part of Yugoslavia.

In the queue for the cable car, one of the operators described how his brothers and sisters were evacuated at the time. He was just ten years old, a reminder that conflict was part of the very recent past of this beautiful place. And while yesterday’s views from the City Walls were pretty stunning, this tops the lot.

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The summit of Srd has been extensively modernised in recent years, meaning not only great views but a nice spot for lunch too. The restaurant here is surprisingly good value given its location. Then again, we’ve all paid about £10 for the privilege of being here in the first place.

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Back at ground level, the cable car is helpfully next to one of the main bus stops leading out of town. And today’s journey along the coast comes complete with another new game show, called Who Is The Rudest Local Person in Croatia? Two contestants vie for the star prize. The first is a man who only needs one seat, but insists on refusing to let anyone else near him, despite several elderly tourists having to stand. The second is a girl who gets on with a pass that doesn’t work. Some kind of deal is done with the driver for her to top up her credit on the phone. The second part of the deal seems to consist of her flirting with him all the way to Cavtat.

Which turns out to be a rather more pretty sight than her.

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One of my guidebooks says that Cavtat is often compared to St Tropez. Thankfully with fewer French people.
And so back to Dubrovnik – this time by boat. Via some pretty bad historic town planning.

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Who allows such things?

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Croatia 2013, Travel Stuff

 

Top Of The World

For convenience, my Old Town apartment is fantastic. For a lie in, it’s not. There are no vehicles allowed in its streets, but the early morning noise of metal trolleys clattering across cobblestones, taking deliveries to the local restaurants and shops, is enough to compete with that of any rush hour in London. Combined with steep, narrow set walls – and single glazing in historic buildings – it all makes for an early start.

And the guidebook recommends an early start to avoid the crowds at the City Walls, literally one of the highlights of Dubrovnik. Unfortunately, everyone else appears to have had the same idea, and it’s a long wait to firstly queue for a ticket, and then to get on the ramparts themselves.

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It’s a painfully slow business. Some people attempting the climb really shouldn’t be here at all. For a couple of people, I fear it might be the last thing they do before keeling over. But once you’ve reached the top, you’re rewarded with magnificent views of forts, rooftops and the busy Old Town below.

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You’re also rewarded with an optional game show, which I’m calling Which Country Has The Rudest Tourists. Anyone who knows me will vouch for the fact that patience isn’t my best characteristic. But here, on the often narrow walls it’s a close run thing between the Germans and the Japanese. The German guide, with a trail of around 15 people in his party, seems to appear everywhere. Even when I manage to shove through the party and get ahead, his droning voice isn’t far behind. He’s done this commentary a hundred times before, and boy does it show.

Then, surprisingly, a small party of Japanese tourists refuse to adhere to the basic rules of queuing for narrow staircases leading to various viewpoints. One woman barks at her friends as she launches herself down a staircase where a dozen people are already trying to get up. Then at the bottom, she steadfastly blocks the way for everyone else as she continues to shout at the others.

In the afternoon, a walk for a mile and a half or so the the main port of Gruz. Unlike the Old Town port – which consists of day cruisers and small ferries, the boats here just get progressively bigger.

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And bigger

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And, frankly, insultingly large

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For many westerners, cruises are what made Dubrovink accessible and famous. Friends rave about them, but personally I can’t imagine spending more than a day on board one of these floating palaces. I can see the attraction of waking up somewhere different each morning, but it still doesn’t appeal.

That said, I do have fairly good sea legs. And tomorrow, it’s all about the boat trip.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2013 in Croatia 2013, Travel Stuff

 

A Polished Performance

If God had painted his own canvas, he’d have been hard pressed to come up with something as beautiful as Dibrovnik’s Old Town on a Sunday afternoon.

I realise that this is a pretty bold statement to make, but it’s a wondrous feast for the eyes. Look up, forwards, downwards, it’s all good. And it all starts at Stradun, the Main Street leading from West to East – a polished pavement of architectural beauty, made tacky by tourism.

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You see, just like God, quite a few people seem to have heard of Dubrovnik. So if you’re coming here, be prepared to take your time. Quite a long time, in fact, as you share the crowded streets with slow moving people from all corners of the world. In the air are accents and words from Australia, Germany, Italy (lots of Italians as it goes) and the Far East. The squares are filled with restauranters and stall holders making Kuna while the sun shines.

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The Kuna, incidentally, is the local currency. Despite joining the EU earlier this year, nobody has adopted the Euro. Which in my experience is a good thing for the pocket. I remember the shock of visiting Ireland the year after the Euro came into widespread use – a very generous exchange rate for the former Irish Punt had turned into a nasty surprise at the bar.

And so Stradun turns into Stara Luka – the Old Port. And a prettier setting you couldn’t wish for.

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The ambiance is mixed with some fairly frequent, but gentle, sales pitches from people selling tickets for the dozens of boat trips that go from here. Around some of the restaurant tables, I see salesmen talking tourists into what may or may not be a good deal. The advantage of staying in the Old Town itself is that I’m under no pressure to make a quick decision.

The Luck Of The Irish

The great thing about visiting new places is learning about the culture, a different way of life. Sampling things you’ve never seen before. Or alternatively, you could visit Dubrovnik’s Celtic Quarter.

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This is the kind of bar I usually hate. But today is different, because it’s the GAA Final between Dublin and Mayo. For the uninitiated, this is a cross between football, rugby and fighting – in no particular order. And the satellite TV feed of RTE’s coverage is enhanced by the presence of a wedding party, who appear to be evenly split between the competing sides. Much chanting and various expletives follow until Dublin are declared the champions by a single point.

Then the sun goes down and Stradun suddenly takes on a whole new character.

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This looks classy, and from the second floor window of the Divine Apartments, even NewsMutt can’t quite work out what to do next.

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This air of sophistication is soon diffused by a visit to the Exit Bar. Described as a “rocker’s meeting place”, I soon hook up with Tomasz and Eva, a Polish couple from Manchester. They’re touring Croatia and currently sleeping in their car, with a view to camping somewhere.

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I’m equally pleased to see that Tomasz is a bit of a techno geek, and seasoned traveller too. He shows me his holiday snaps of boring places, like Madagascar and Jamaica. I’m not at all jealous. Then, fires up an app on his iPad, and suddenly he’s talking to his dad. From a rock bar. As you do.

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Presently, Eva decides that it’s time for shots. That’s the drink I never drink, for fear of projectile vomiting a few minutes afterwards. Except this is Croatia, and we are introduced to the delights of a honey/cognac combo. Which turns out to be rather nice.

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As I exit Exit, it feels like it’s been a late night. But it’s not.

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And as with the circle of life, I end up back in the Irish bar, where a local performer is murdering a few songs. Thankfully, for once, I’m not the one joining in

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That’s more than enough for one day.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Croatia 2013, Travel Stuff